‘We’re living in the world Breitbart created now’

December 9, 2016

After an election upset that exposed media types as out of touch with the conservative electorate, many journalists have been looking for ways to pop, or at least counter the effects, of the so-called “filter bubble.” Right Richter, a media digest for people who don’t usually consume right-wing news, might be a good start. As the newsletter’s author, Will Sommer, writes in his first post-election edition, “We’re living in the world Breitbart created now, so it’s going to be more important than ever to understand what they want and what they’re saying to one another.”

Sommer, a 28-year-old campaign editor at The Hill, says he has been surprised at how little right-wing news his journalist friends who work at explicitly liberal publications read. At the same time, he acknowledges that, while there are good conservative news outlets, much of the right-wing media has become a carnival show. “For me that’s great, I love it, but as far as people trying to keep up with this stuff, that complicates it,” he says. Growing up in a staunchly Republican household, Sommer developed a taste for Rush Limbaugh and other conservative commentators at an early age. Even though his politics have changed, he finds himself continuing to read right-wing news just for fun. “Not everyone has the stomach for this stuff and I enjoy it, so I might as well let people know what’s going on,” he says.

Since the election, media personalities have been reaching out to their political opposites in an attempt at empathy and civilized discourse. Trevor Noah invited The Blaze commentator Tomi Lahren onto The Daily Show to discuss her extreme right-wing views. The New York Times’ Public Editor Liz Spayd (formerly the EIC here at CJR) was a guest of Fox News’s Tucker Carlson on a segment about the perceived bias of the mainstream media. CNN recently aired Van Jones’s documentary The Messy Truth, which depicts his efforts to understand where Trump voters are coming from. The question of how to bridge the divide and what role the media should play has been a hot topic. But how did we get here?

Ken Stern, president of Palisades Media Ventures and former CEO of NPR, spent the entire week after the election consuming only conservative news, an experience he documented for Vanity Fair. Stern is writing a book about political polarization that aims to answer the question of why we seem to hate each other so much more now, even though data shows that we don’t necessarily disagree any more than we used to. The media is partly to blame, he says. Whereas news outlets used to operate as something of a public square where people could come together to air their views, nowadays news outlets are increasingly becoming a major source of division. “I think media on all fronts are finding out that conflict really works for them,” he says.

Alexander Stille, a professor at the Columbia Journalism School, traces the current bunkered state of the US media landscape back to Reagan’s abolition of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. When the doctrine was introduced in 1949, there were limited broadcast licenses. Regulators, concerned with ensuring the public was exposed to a certain plurality of views, stipulated that radio and TV license-holders had to operate in the public interest. If a TV guest advocated against smoking, the channel then had to provide an opportunity for rebuttal by, for example, someone from the smoking industry. “Broadcasting tried to do as little editorializing as possible because it was complicated and messy and their licenses might be at stake if they were seen to have lurched too far in one direction,” says Stille. “That meant that broadcasting was incredibly bland and centrist.”

Cable television changed that. It created the possibility of hundreds of channels, which gave rise to the idea that a plurality of viewpoints could be presented by multiple, partisan channels. Stille says that line of thought is flawed. “People don’t consume news by watching five different channels. They have their channel that they tend to watch. So what we’ve had is that people have gotten further dug into their own news environment.”

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The fragmentation of the media landscape also led to the emergence of a new business model. Channels that could capture a 5 to 10 percent audience share in an inexpensive way were rewarded. Instead of having a large international news staff, outlets put talking heads on panels and amped up the conflict. “If people are shouting at each other and humiliating their guests, that makes for good political theater, and good television theater, and keeps people watching,” he says. “Extreme claims capture people’s attention more than bland, middle-of-the-road, on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand journalism.” The advent of the internet only reinforced the tendency and ability for people to exist in their own personal information bubbles.

Stille links Trump and the current state of the US media to what he observed in Italy with Berlusconi. “It is to me not insignificant that the two countries where we’ve seen the sort of phenomenon that Trump and Berlusconi represent are two major democracies in which media was entirely deregulated,” he says. “Unfortunately, the toothpaste is out of that particular tube. There’s no way in the world we currently live in that somebody could reintroduce the Fairness Doctrine, as valuable as that might be.”

If the entire media environment is structured in a way that produces echo chambers, then it’s up to journalists to seek a way out of them at the individual level. For some, that means re-engineering their social networks; for others it means changing their media diet–all in aid of exposing themselves to a wider mix of viewpoints. 

In the absence of any knowledge of, or control over, how Facebook’s algorithms actually work, Mother Jones journalist James West (the guy who broke the story about Trump employing illegal models) decided three days after the election to friend all the Trump supporters he had interviewed on the campaign trail. “I thought, if I can simply tweak my algorithmic News Feed by adding and liking a diverse set of Trump voters, will it be true that my preferences will shift and my News Feed, and therefore worldview, will be more diverse?”

West, himself based in New York, added Trump supporters from Missouri, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Texas, upstate New York, Virginia, Kansas, and Indiana. He’s been engaging in conversations with all of them, mostly privately to start with, but already he’s seeing posts they share from news outlets to which he wouldn’t usually be exposed. It’s giving him a clearer picture of the frustrations of Trump voters who feel they’ve been patronized by the mainstream press, he says.

So far, West hasn’t seen any corresponding shift in the type of news articles being served to him by Facebook’s algorithm, but the experiment is a work in progress, and he’ll be reporting on the results for Mother Jones. “As an Australian, as a foreigner, it adds brushstrokes into this very detailed portrait of America that I’ve been trying to draw for myself over a number of years.”

Not everyone agrees the exercise is worthwhile. When West posted about the experiment on Facebook, the response from Mother Jones readers was mixed. In the days after the election, some weren’t ready to reach out to the other side, “or thought that it was a trite or even condescending idea that there was a great lot there to be understood. That in itself is sort of inherently condescending in some ways, but there were a lot of people who said, ‘Yeah, this is cool, it has been a problem in my life,’” says West.

Stern, who has often found himself knee-deep in Breitbart’s comments section during the course of his research, argues that simply ignoring what’s being said out there isn’t a useful strategy. “There [are] a lot of things I dislike about [Breitbart], intensely, but they also were early to identify issues that mattered to a group of people who felt very locked out of the political process,” says Stern. “It is an important media outlet in this world now, and that means people should pay attention to it if they want to understand what’s going on in our politics.”

As to whether the consumption of right-wing news puts one in better touch with the electorate, Right Richter’s Sommer isn’t sure. Despite his understanding of the right-wing news ecosystem, he was as stunned by Trump’s win as many of his lefty friends. “We were passing around an electoral map at work and I had Hillary winning like 330 or something, so obviously I don’t know what I’m talking about,” he jokes. But he is right that understanding the conservative media landscape has become much more important now that the president-elect is tweeting things he has read on InfoWars. “This stuff is going to be injected into the mainstream and into our consciousness much more than we’ve had to deal with it in the past.” 

Shelley Hepworth , formerly a CJR Delacorte Fellow, is Technology Editor at The Conversation in Australia. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymiranda.